The Long and Winding Runway

By Paul Maloy, EAA 1285744

The squat, white jet slipped through the air with its telltale whistle still audible in spite of my helmet headset. Cruising at 185 knots at about 17,000 feet AGL, we had been granted access to the upper practice block close to the Superstition Mountain Range northeast of Williams Air Force Base. We were climbing to go play around the gleaming, puffy marshmallow clouds towering in a cobalt-blue sky. Oxygen mask snugly in place, gray visor down, control stick in my right hand, and left on the throttles, I thought, “I made it! This is what I worked so hard for. This is my dream come true!” 

At my Air Force instructor’s encouragement, I moved the T-37 Tweet closer to the towering cloud bank until my left wingtip began to slice the cloud like a scalpel. This was the years of dreaming of flying made real. This was all my hard work in fruition as we banked to follow gray cotton canyon walls inside the massive cumulonimbus cloud. Looping inside an enormous chamber in the cloud, my IP, 1st Lt. McWhirter, took the controls momentarily as we punched out the bottom of the cloud base followed by my recovery from our upside-down “unusual attitude.” 

Without question, that was an awesome flying experience. There wouldn’t be many more. Six months later, my flying dream was all but shattered as an Air Force flight surgeon grounded me permanently due to an inner ear imbalance problem that became acute during spin recoveries. I really hate spins. 

It never ceases to amaze me when I read or hear stories of teenage pilots earning their private pilot certificate the day they turn 17 years old. Or how about the young men and women who go from start to newly minted private pilot in 30 days? Impressive to be sure!

My journey to earning my certificate is the opposite kind of story. It spans 35 years and 22 months. My story is a testament that it is never too late to complete a lifelong dream. 

Like many, my aviation spark came from my dad. My dad was born in a small farming town in Arizona where he dreamed of baseball, not flying. But in 1955, he received that letter notifying him that he was to report to Army boot camp where he became an infantry sharpshooter stationed in Panama for the next 18 months. He didn’t like being a soldier very much, but it was there he met a U.S. Air Force pilot while attending church in Panama. They became friends and the captain took my dad up three separate times in the backseat of a T-33 Shooting Star. Plus, as a photograph attests, he finagled at least one ride in an L-19 Bird Dog. Those opportunities were when my dad fell in love with aviation. 

But after the Army, he did the usual things: He went to college, graduated, married in 1958, got a job, and life happened. 

Growing up in Phoenix, Arizona, my third grade school friends and I became interested in dragsters and I was drawing them on every scrap of paper I could get my hands on. Then my dad took me to an air show at Williams AFB near Chandler. Seeing the Thunderbirds in their brand new, incredibly loud, F-4E Phantom II jets, I was irreversibly hooked on aviation. 

Twice, during my childhood, my dad began taking flying lessons. Both times, our growing family derailed his ability to finish. Still, my dad frequently took our family to air shows and to visit the many regional airports near us. Sometimes we would simply park at the end of the runway at Sky Harbor International Airport to watch jetliners. Or better yet, at the end of the runway of Luke AFB, where we could feel the blast of F-104 Starfighters and F-4 Phantoms as they came thundering in on final right over our heads popping their drag chutes to slow down. 

Later in life, my dad became involved with the Salt Lake City-based EAA Chapter 23, enjoying their friendly chapter meetings and occasionally helping as a ground handler for Young Eagles rallies. After retirement, he bought an ultralight-class single-seater that he hoped to fix and fly. At 80 years old he was still dreaming of flying, but that reality never came to be.

In the meantime, as the oldest of seven children, I worked through the Air Force ROTC program at the University of Utah and earned a coveted pilot slot in 1985. After graduation and commissioning in June 1986, I reported to undergraduate pilot training at Williams AFB as Class 8707. Having gone to air shows there as a kid, reporting to “Willie” for UPT felt like some kind of universal alignment indicating that I was where I was supposed to be. 

However, as my dad well understood, curveballs happen to the best of intentions. My whole life I had been plagued by the inability to do a simple spin. I could loop and roll all day long on the wildest of roller coasters but put me on a slow merry-go-round and I turned green. Needless to say, more than a couple control-line airplanes ended in pieces with me at the controls. Thus, spins in the T-37 Tweety Bird were not fun. 

While I actually passed the “spin block” of the Tweet syllabus, a flight surgeon strongly pushed that I consider a non-flying assignment rather than wait for the “inevitable” wash-out to happen. And with that, I was grounded.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, while waiting for reassignment as a missile launch officer, my Reserve status was re-invoked, and suddenly I had to find a civilian job. With wife and twin infants in tow, we returned to the Salt Lake City area to pick up the pieces and move forward doing something else.

Even as I took office jobs, I still loved aviation and managed to get assigned as a Reserve officer to aircraft and operational safety with the Utah Wing of the Civil Air Patrol. But over the next 18 years, my primary job was working for a variety of computer hardware and software companies in marketing and management. 

Each year, for 10 years, I put the goal of earning my pilot certificate on my New Year’s resolutions list. And each year, the financial alignment didn’t happen even as my professional career was going well enough. At one point, a friend and I considered the possibility of buying a pickled C-172 for $11,000. HINDSIGHT ALERT! We should have done it.

Then in 2005, in a major life change, I resigned from my job as a high-tech marketing manager and chose to do something that was another long-held dream: I determined it was then or never to become a classroom teacher. And with it, a financial plunge from six figures to less than $16,000 working my first year as a substitute teacher. Don’t let anyone fool you: Teachers work harder for less than any job out there. Sixty-hour work weeks are the norm, and the idea of three months off for summertime is a total myth.

The spark of aviation was still inside me and I built up a veritable library of books about airplanes. My classroom walls contained aviation posters and memorabilia, and I loved talking about aviation anytime and anywhere I could. Yet, the dream of earning my own pilot certificate simply succumbed to brutal, financial reality. 

Occasional air shows and regular trips to one of the finest Air Force museums in the country, the Hill AFB Museum in Layton, Utah, continued to feed my need to mingle with aircraft. One day while doing yardwork in the spring of 2017, I heard the distinctive sound of round motors flying overhead. Looking up, I saw a Ford Tri-Motor flying by. I pointed it out and commented to my daughter-in-law that it was a magnificent piece of flying history and explained about its role in aviation. After it flew by a couple times, I commented that it was likely flying from nearby Skypark Airport and probably giving rides. Wistfully, I mentioned that it would be an amazing experience to fly in such a grand piece of aviation history. Within an hour, my children had been mobilized to share the cost for me to ride in the Tri-Motor as an early Father’s Day present, and I was standing in a short line waiting my turn. 

It gets better! As I stepped up to the desk to sign in, the woman attendant asked if I had a pilot’s logbook, and if so, I could pay a bit extra and actually FLY the Tri-Motor. I think my eyes may have watered a bit at that invitation. I knew exactly where my long-dormant logbook was, sitting forlornly in a bed stand drawer. We paid for the upgrade and retrieved my logbook within minutes. Taking the controls of the Tri-Motor over the towns of northern Utah, and officially recording .40 of yoke time in a classic aircraft, was such an incredible treat! Photos of me flying the EAA Tri-Motor were soon integrated into my presentation on the golden era of aviation for my seventh grade U.S. history classes, further convincing my students that Mr. Maloy was a true timelord.

During the years I was admiring aviation from a distance, two younger brothers bounded their way into aviation. 

My brother Dan, EAA 715456, earned his Air Force wings at Reese AFB in 1993. After a tour in EC-130s, he became a Tweet IP at Columbus AFB, then instructed in the new T-6 Texan II turboprop trainer, first at Moody AFB and finally at Vance AFB. Retiring as a major in 2015, Dan is now flying 737s with Delta Air Lines. 

Another brother, Kenneth, EAA 1285763, went to work as an aircraft mechanic for regional carrier SkyWest Airlines in 2013 after years of working in audio-visual retail and service. Working as an aircraft mechanic is a dream come true for him. For the last few years, Kenneth has also devoted a lot of his weekends to help restore an A-26 Invader at the Provo, Utah, airport. Another few years and it will fly into AirVenture.

In the meantime, bowing to years of good-natured pressure and brotherly “deals,” I reluctantly agreed to go with these two brothers to AirVenture 2018. Dan purchased our EAA memberships and our week-long entrance wristbands to AirVenture. Through a mashup of commercial flights and driving, we arrived together to pitch a tent in Camp Scholler.

And that’s when the magic began.

We arrived on Sunday evening. Because all three of us are warbird enthusiasts, Dan suggested we go to “Fightertown” and see what had already come in. I thought, “I like the sound of that.”

Mind. Blown. On our walk to the warbirds area, we passed the World War I replica area where three aircraft sat awaiting the official kickoff of festivities. We loitered around the 1/3-scale B-17 “Bally’s Bomber” which nearly made me trip over my own jaw. Continuing, we walked past “RV acres,” which was my first introduction to the Van’s Air Force, the RV-8 instantly becoming a new favorite. We admired the myriad of paint schemes. That Sunday evening, my previous concept of what a “homebuilt” was catapulted skyward and would continue to accelerate through the week. I simply had no idea of the scope and true nature of EAA and experimental aircraft.

I was already feeling like I was in aviation heaven as we finally arrived at the warbirds area. And sitting there in the dusk of the day were 14 P-51 Mustangs (my all-time fave), four Corsairs, three P-40s, Hellcats, Tigercats, and Bearcats (oh my!). And a seemingly endless array of ex-military trainers from PT-13 Stearmans to T-34 Mentors, and everything in between. 

I discovered a new favorite aircraft, the L-39 Albatros, in the lineup of jet aircraft sitting demurely along a tarmac just beyond the incredible line of nearly a dozen B-25 and A-26 medium bombers and C-47 aircraft. On the asphalt I spotted an old friend, a T-37 sitting low like a sports car between Alpha Jets and T-33 Shooting Stars. Seeing massive A-1 Skyraiders doubled my admiration of those who flew that behemoth into the ground wars of Korea and Vietnam.

If I had died right then and there, I’d have arrived at St. Peter’s pearly gates with an enormous permanent grin on my face. All this in the first hour of arriving at aviation mecca. 

Throughout the coming week, I absolutely fell in love with the airplanes and the air show. But most impressive were the people, all coming together to share and celebrate the seemingly endless possibilities of aviation as a hobby, as a profession, as a way of life. I was irreversibly hooked. My brothers and I began planning our every other year return trip for 2020 before the week was out.

Returning home to Utah, three things happened immediately: I sought out and joined EAA Chapter 23; I created an aviation club at the middle school where I taught U.S. history; and I began inquiring about how to get back in the cockpit and finally finish my pilot certificate.

By 2020, saddened at the cancellation of AirVenture, but with my wife’s wonderful encouragement, we lined up our financial ducks, and I began flight training from square one. Again. For the third time. And it was slow going.

Teaching, never-ending prepping, and grading restricted me to fly one day a week, and maybe on Saturdays, IF the weather was good enough. There were a LOT of cancellations. To make matters worse, although I had passed ground school courses twice before, this time trying to learn from an online course during the COVID pandemic was simply awful. People learn in different ways. I re-discovered that I am a hands-on, kinesthetic learner. In other words, I learn better by doing, not merely by hearing or watching. Unfortunately, there were no in-person ground school classrooms anywhere to be found. It took me over a year, after dozens of practice tests, and a LOT of CFI sessions, to pass the written exam.

In the meantime, my CFIs commented that I flew the Cherokee 160 like a fighter airplane. I was never quite sure if that was a compliment or not. I did learn to be less aggressive with my control inputs, but I truly miss 90-degree banks and pulling a couple gs in the pattern.

Did you notice the plural use of CFI? I had five. FIVE! All different styles and each seemed to have their styles and pet peeves. And switching between four Cherokees of varying horsepower and instrument sets was also interesting. I learned a lot. And racked up the hours.

Night hours, check. Tower time, check. Medical, check. Solo, check. Cross-countries, check.

Finally, the day arrived for my final checkride with a great DPE. Immediately, Mike made me feel comfortable and more relaxed. But the experience was still stacked against me. By luck of the draw, I was flying a recently acquired Cherokee with two Garmin G5s, one set up for VOR navigation that I had practiced only a few minutes with. Add to that intense turbulence in our practice area and slow flight became an impossibility to maintain reasonable altitudes. I hooked the ride, failing the VOR portion (I couldn’t remember how to set the instrument) and slow flight, even with the extra turbulent altitudes.

Truly though, I was okay with that. I had done my best for the moment. And I learned the importance of not pushing prematurely just to meet a schedule. If I feel I’m not ready, then I’m not ready, and I need more practice. And more practice was exactly what I did. A month later, on March 4, 2022, at 6 a.m., I passed my checkride and finally, after 35 years and 22 months of effort, I was a certified private pilot! 

The first thing I did was call my wife to tell her the news. The second thing I did was get to my school where there were more than a few students who were rooting for me to complete my goal. It was time to celebrate! Weather delayed a couple attempts to take my wife up for a ride, but by mid-March, I had flown with my wife, four of my five children, and three of my six grandchildren. Flight is an experience that has to be shared. And we all know that as we share the gift of flight, our enjoyment of what we can do grows exponentially.

It was worth the wait. It was worth the effort. I have accomplished the dream.

And, just because I sometimes do things a bit out of order, I had actually already purchased an airplane. Flying into Houston early in the week of Thanksgiving 2021 with one of my CFIs, we picked up a sweet 1960 Comanche 250 to ferry back to Salt Lake City. She flies great! And I eagerly look forward to many years of sharing and enjoying “hundred-dollar burgers” and the adventures of cross-country flying. See you out there!

Paul Maloy is now the director of education for EAA with primary responsibility for Air Academy, the Youth Education Center, and the online youth aviation education initiative. He lives in Oshkosh with his amazing wife, right between Wittman Airport (KOSH) and Lake Winnebago almost directly under the path for “Final, Runway 27, full stop, Oshkosh.”

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